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Ed. Dept. Officials Hit the Rural Route—Again

Education Department officials are in rural Alabama this week looking at programs in school districts rural advocates list among the most distressed in the nation. John White, deputy secretary for rural outreach, said the purpose of the three-day visit to the Greensboro, Ala., area was to talk about ways to train and place high-quality teachers in local schools and to tout the administration's 2020 college completion goal, highlighted at a White House summit this week.

White and Michael Robbins, special assistant for faith-based and community partnerships, spent Wednesday and Thursday with rural educators, and non-profit and private sector leaders. Among them: Dr. Mark Heinrich, president of Shelton State Community College, and Dr. Stephen G. Katsinas, director and chair, National Scholars Panel and Rural Community College Alliance.

Discussion included expanding degree and certificate achievement in community colleges that serve high-poverty areas, as well as the role community colleges play in training teachers for high-need rural areas. Those conversations followed the White House Summit on Community Colleges this week in which President Obama cited his goal for the nation to lead the world in the proportion of college graduates by the year 2020. Read detailed coverage by Caralee Adams in the College Bound blog.

Representatives from a number of the nation's rural community colleges either attended or participated in the summit online. Those institutions are critical resources in rural communities and for rural school districts, White said. "Community colleges are often the closest access to college, career training, dual-enrollment, and school and economic development partnerships for many rural students," he said.

The Education Department has stepped up its presence in rural school districts in recent months in the wake of criticism that many of its reform policies aim primarily at urban schools and do not work well in rural settings.

Greensboro, population 2,731, is the county seat of Hale County, located in central western Alabama. It is among the counties listed in the Rural 800/900 by the Rural School and Community Trust, which identifies rural school districts with highest rates of poverty in the nation.

Hale County, along with 19 other counties in Alabama, is a part of what RSCT has termed the Black Belt of poverty, running from northeast North Carolina through South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi to Louisiana. African-Americans make up the majority of residents in Hale County, at 60.89 percent. About 27.2 percent of families and 35.3 percent of the population were below the poverty line, including 47.1 percent of those under age 18.

White and Robbins also met Thursday with rural superintendents and principals to talk about reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The tour will conclude today with a meeting with the executive director of the Alabama region of Teach for America. Teach for America this year expanded into Alabama, placing 30 teachers in the state.

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